If you didn’t hear yet, Appalachian State is making a return trip to the Big House, the spot that saw one of the biggest upsets in college football history 7 years ago. Several of the sport's powerhouse programs are facing off in September before conference play heats up. These random matchups make college football special, and take on an even bigger meaning with the new playoff format that focuses on strength of schedule. Here are 25 out-of-conference games to look forward to in the fall; some are annual rivalry games while others are random pairings of heavyweights. Less than 100 days til kickoff...
1. Michigan State at Oregon
This is a dream matchup given their opposing strengths. Michigan State had one of the toughest defenses in the nation last season, while Oregon is known for its high-octane speed offense. This matchup of elites will factor into the playoff discussion as both are Top 10 teams and possible contenders. Oregon has been able to sustain its success while Michigan State is new to this role. Keep in mind Oregon has a huge homefield advantage here and a likely spot for College Gameday.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU
Similar styles face off here in a rare regular season SEC-BigTen matchup. It will be run-heavy with stingy defense as both teams fight to start the season undefeated. Wisconsin returns a dynamic RB duo in Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, while LSU’s 5-star RB Leonard Fournette will make his collegiate debut. This is the first game of the series and next fall it moves north to Lambeau Field.
3. Notre Dame's Schedule
Since every Notre Dame game is technically out-of-conference, I grouped their schedule together here. 5 games stand out: the final game (for now) against rival Michigan, a trip to face defending National Champion Florida State, Arizona State in the desert, always-tough Stanford, and the season finale at USC. Other matchups include Northwestern, Louisville, North Carolina, and Navy, making this once again the most intriguing schedule in Division 1 football.
4. South Carolina at Clemson
Historically, this in-state rivalry is among the most bitter in the nation and has only escalated with the recent surge of the South Carolina program under Steve Spurrier. USC has now won 5 in a row, and after an exchange of offseason acts of vandalism, this year’s edition will be heated once again. There's Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan, and USC-Clemson in terms of the most bitter rivalries; and I’m not sure the order.
5. Clemson at Georgia
The USC game is Clemson's season finale, a long way away from this season opener against regional rival Georgia. They met in Week 1 last season, and it was a special, electric atmosphere in Death Valley. While several offensive weapons are gone, this should still be one of the most exciting out-of-conference games all season. If nothing else, you need to check out UGA RB Todd Gurley, back from injury and ready to launch a Heisman campaign.
6. Florida at Florida State
If everything goes as planned for the Seminoles, this game will mark the last challenge to a second straight undefeated regular season. And that is exactly what the Gators hope to derail. A significant number of these players faced off against one another throughout their high school careers in the Speed State, and there is always bad blood between these rivals.
7. Miami at Nebraska
In a battle of 5-time National Champions, Nebraska finally has home-field advantage in the series. These programs have faced off in several national championships, most taking place on Miami’s home turf in the Orange Bowl. They haven’t met since Miami’s destruction of Eric Crouch’s Huskers in the 2001 National Championship, and the hometown Huskers hope it turns out more like the ’94 title game.
8. Tennessee at Oklahoma
The Vols make a trip to the Midwest to take on preseason Top 10 Oklahoma. Although Tennessee may not be in their old form, Butch Jones has them on the right track, and it is still special seeing two historic programs face off. Both programs were forces in the early BCS-era, and hope to return to dominance in this new Playoff era.
9. Texas vs. UCLA
Both programs find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Texas has a coach not named Mack Brown for the first time since ’97, while UCLA looks to make a major statement on the national stage. UCLA believes they have the pieces to be a championship contender, while Texas is undergoing a “rebuilding” phase, a change from its usual “reloading.” Unless Coach Strong can quickly fix the Longhorn defense, look for QB Brett Hundley to tear apart the Burnt Orange.
10. Auburn at Kansas State
We might as well call this the JUCO Transfer Bowl. Under legendary coach Bill Snyder, Kansas State has had a major focus on bringing in Junior College playmakers. At Auburn, both Cam Newton and Nick Marshall have JUCO roots and have been major successes for the Tigers. Further, current KSU QB Jake Waters is a former JUCO and looks poised for a breakout season. This is an interesting (random) Thursday night matchup that should tell us a lot about both squads.
11. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State
The defending champs have a slogan for 2014: “From Dallas to Dallas” referencing the location of their season opener and (hopefully) the National Championship. In order to make this a reality, it all starts in week 1 against Mike Gundy’s Cowboys. Despite losing a lot of production, the Pokes should give Famous Jameis a tough opener.
12. Virginia Tech at Ohio State
While this isn’t the dominant Virginia Tech of the 2000s, Frank Beamer will surely have his Hokies ready to play in the Horseshoe. Ohio State is coming off of two tough losses after a 24-game win streak to start Urban Meyer’s Buckeye career. Somehow this is the first meeting between the schools. The national stage provides Braxton Miller with a chance to launch his Heisman campaign – OR for Virginia Tech to return to relevance with a major upset.
13. Appalachian State at Michigan
This one amazes me. You would think that Michigan would want to simply avoid a rematch and never have to bring up its darkest hour again. It seems to be a lose-lose for the Maize and Blue. Would beating them 50-0 really make up for the 2007 debacle? But if somehow the Mountaineers hang in for a quarter, half, or finish close, it would still almost feel like another loss. This will be App State’s first ever game as a Division 1-A program, but keep in mind that the talent level is not quite what is was in 2007 amidst their 3 national titles.
14. Arkansas at Texas Tech
These former Southwest Conference rivals played 35 straight years until 1991, and haven’t played since. Despite the Razorbacks early struggles under coach Bret Bielema, this matchup will be a special return of the rivalry. The Hogs have won 28 of 35 games, but times have changed in Lubbock.
15. Alabama vs. West Virginia
I think its safe to say that the Mountaineers are more excited for this one than the Tide fans. This is West Virginia’s Super Bowl, a chance to shock the college football world. Meanwhile, besides settling the QB position battle, this should just be a uniform 42-3 cakewalk for the Crimson Tide.
16. Army vs. Navy
Yes, this is technically “out-of-conference” and needs to be on this list. I am not sure how to compare it to the other games (it is in its own category), but one thing is certain- this is one of America’s best traditions, and is always a special game to cap off the regular season. Plus, each year and Navy victory that goes by makes the next one that much more important for Army to finally break through.
17. Georgia Tech at Georgia
They call it “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” for a reason. Both teams have their own conference rivals but this season finale for the state title could top them all. UGA has won 5 straight, including the 2009 win over GT’s successful 11-3 squad.
18. USC at Boston College
New coach Steve Sarkisian and Southern Cal will complete the home-away series with a return trip to Chestnut Hill to take on Steve Addazio’s Eagles. USC takes on extremely physical Stanford the week before, and will surely be roughed up heading into this one. Boston College gained some national attention thanks to Heisman candidate Andre Williams, but looks to take the next step and steal a victory on the national primetime stage.
19. Penn State vs. Central Florida
This game takes place in Ireland, and PSU views this as their “bowl game.” Don’t overlook Central Florida; the Knights went into Beaver Stadium last September and beat the home squad 34-31. However, UCF loses QB Blake Bortles and RB Storm Johnson, while PSU is replacing the entire coaching staff. Should be an intriguing season opener (9 am kickoff, week 1).
20. BYU at Texas
Last September, QB Taysom Hill tore apart the Longhorn defense, rushing for 259 yards in BYU’s blowout victory over then-#15 Texas. The series returns to Austin, and with the new staff, the Horns hope to erase these dark memories and avenge the loss.
21. Ole Miss vs. Boise State
These two programs are surging in opposite directions. Ole Miss has been on the cusp of breaking through to the conference elite, and with that top recruiting class another year older and more experienced, this could be the break-through season. It all starts against Boise State, a program that lost its legendary head coach to Washington.
22. BYU at Boise State
These two may just be the top non-Power 5 programs, and this primetime Friday night game will be a showcase for regional supremacy. The recent series is split (2012 Boise State victory, 2013 BYU victory) with this being the deciding 3rd game. As mentioned, Boise State is without their leader Coach Petersen.
23. North Dakota State at Iowa State
North Dakota State has won 3 straight FCS titles, and has a record of 7-3 against D-1 teams. Last Week 1, they knocked off defending Big12 Champs Kansas State. However, how will they replace the leadership of Coach Craig Bohl and QB Brock Jensen? Is Iowa State the next Bison victim?
24. Iowa at Pittsburgh
This ACC-BigTen matchup is quite random, but could be a showcase for two programs on the rise. Iowa returned to respectability last fall, while Pitt has young offensive playmakers to help its rise. The 2011 meeting was entertaining (31-27 Iowa), and this one could match it.
25. Washington at Hawaii
This could be a stretch, but I had to include Coach Chris Petersen’s first game as the head coach of Washington. UW heads to the islands, a familiar opponent of Petersen’s. This is the first chapter of Petersen’s campaign, a very intriguing new hire.
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